Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.
Today’s expression: dar(le) la vuelta a la tortilla
The phrase literally translates as, “flip the tortilla,” referring to the swift and committed action it takes to turn a Spanish potato omelet over in the pan. Yet figuratively, to dar la vuelta a la tortilla is the equivalent of turning the tables or the tide, i.e. reversing a situation, often in favor of the underdog. It can also mean to completely change your opinion, as in do an about-face. I have found that this expression is more commonly used in writing than in daily speech, and it often appears in sociopolitical contexts.
I first encountered this idiom in a pamphlet on a message board at the University of Murcia. ¿Quién da la vuelta a la tortilla? it asked in bold letters, “Who will flip the tortilla?” Intrigued, I read the subheading, “Men, women and gender roles in the collections of three regional museums.” This was not some cooking event as I had first imagined. Instead, the workshop aimed to provoke critical thinking about gender in society through art, with the ultimate goal of turning the tide. Dar la vuelta a la tortilla, explained the pamphlet, meant, “something needs to change.”
By this time, I had been living in Spain for nearly two years and had made more than one potato tortilla (with varying degrees of success). I had never heard the idiomatic expression before, but immediately got it, as would anyone who has attempted to flip a still partially goopy Spanish omelet. This risky endeavor demands decisiveness and speed, not to mention confidence in your equipment (a truly non-stick pan and a plate large enough to cover and flip). You cannot let your opponent (the omelet) feel your fear, or it’s all over (i.e. runny eggs all over the hot burner).
Looking for other idiomatic uses of this expression, I came across a strong and unambiguous example: the politically charged song Que La Tortilla Se Vuelva (Let the Tables Be Turned), released in 1968 by the Chilean folk group Quilapayún, champions of the working class and indigenous Latin American communities. This particular song was dedicated to the Spanish Civil War and rooted in the worldwide chorus of demands for greater social equality in the 1960s. The idiom comes in the last angry stanza of the song (the profanity may shock, but makes the meaning of the expression “clearer than water,” as they say in Spanish).
Cuando querrá el dios del cielo
que la tortilla se vuelva,
que los pobres coman pan
y los ricos mierda, mierda.
When it is the will of the god of heaven / may the tables be turned / may the poor eat bread /and the rich shit, shit.
In this song, we see force this idiom can have in political contexts.
Yet sometimes the idiom comes full circle, returning to a culinary context in which it is both literal and figurative at once. I found an example of such word play in a blog post in the Spanish daily El País entitled, ¿Cómo dar la vuelta a la tortilla? (How can we flip the tortilla?/How can we turn the tables?) by José Carlos Capel, the paper’s culinary critic. Capel certainly knows a thing or two about tortillas, having penned two entire books on the subject, Homenaje a la tortilla de patatas and El Gran libro de la tortilla de patatas.
The article does not so much address the technicalities of flipping as it does the quality (or perceived lack thereof) of tortillas throughout Spain. “Why are the majority of tortillas found in Spanish bars so bad?” laments Capel. Ultimately, the author calls for a tortilla revolution of sorts. The exact form the tortilla takes doesn’t matter (thick or thin, with or without onions, with oil-poached potatoes or crisp fried potatoes, etc.) – just make it good!
Dar la vuelta a la tortilla – It begins at home!
To fully understand this idiom, I suggest making a tortilla of your own if you haven’t already. A lot has been written about how to make a good one, and for many Spaniards, the ideal version is the one they grew up with. The truth is there are many delicious ways to make a tortilla, and it takes experimenting to find your preference. All recipes of course have one thing in common – the decisive flip.
Check out these two recipes from excellent sources for Spanish cuisine:
- Miriam Garcia’s recipe on Honest Cooking. (I like how Garcia describes the flip as “the most interesting stage.”)
- Cookbook author Janet Mendel’s recipe on her blog, My Kitchen in Spain. Janet makes it sound easy!
Now on to all the other tortillas out there in need of flipping!